This blog by CaCHE researcher Dr Jenny Preece was originally published by Housing After Grenfell. It follows the launch of the CaCHE report, Living through the building safety crisis, which was published in November 2021. 

Whilst its roots are long (see, for example Stuart Hodkinson’s work), the contemporary building safety crisis or ‘cladding scandal’ came into public consciousness in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, particularly through revelations from the ongoing public inquiry. Although much initial attention was focused on flammable cladding, it is now clear that building safety problems extend to a litany of issues, from insulation and fire breaks, to compartmentation between flats, inadequate fire doors, and flammable materials on balconies. The result, as the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee have noted, is that many leaseholders are “trapped in unsafe, unsellable homes”.

In June and July 2021, we carried out research with 32 leaseholders in different cities in England and Wales, to find out about the impact of the building safety crisis on their lives. In particular, we wanted to understand the different drivers of mental wellbeing impacts across a number of domains: mental health, feelings of safety, financial security, autonomy, relationships, and identity and outlook. Whilst the home has often been thought of as a locus of control, security and safety, experiences of the building safety crisis align with recent research by Craig Gurney and Lindsey McCarthy in conceptualising the home as a space of harm.

It is perhaps not surprising that the mental wellbeing impact of living through this crisis has been described by leaseholders as “catastrophic”, “devastating” and “traumatic”. Individuals faced thoughts about cladding and building safety problems intruding in their mind throughout their day, being unable to think about anything else, resulting – in some cases – in treatment for anxiety, depression, and suicidal feelings. Given the scale of problems identified and the way in which the crisis leeches into many different areas of someone’s life, it would perhaps be more shocking if these negative impacts were absent. However, our research with leaseholders demonstrated that there are multiple and interacting drivers of these mental harms, which taken together result in widespread negative emotional outcomes across a range of domains of everyday life.

Most of the leaseholders that we spoke with did not feel that they lived in a particularly unsafe building, and thought that the chance of a catastrophic fire breaking out was relatively low. Although for a small number of individuals the perceived risk of fire was a significant source of stress, for many, fear of fire was not driving most of the negative emotional impacts of the building safety crisis. Rather, the financial impacts were one of the biggest drivers of mental harm for leaseholders. This comprised increasing day-to-day costs through rising buildings insurance premiums or paying for interim measures, as well as the long-term consequences of the cost of remediation works. The significant uncertainty around the cost of remediation works – which commonly was estimated into the tens of thousands of pounds – and whether or how much individual leaseholders would be liable for, added to the sense of persistent insecurity, lives in limbo, and inability to plan for the future.

The financial consequences of building safety problems were tied up with other drivers of mental harm. For example, many leaseholders talked about loss of autonomy or control over their own lives. This may be as a result of worsening finances (now, or in the future), which affected the life choices they could make. The EWS survey process was the other major factor, because without an assessment – and achieving a particular rating, which may involve significant remediation works – leaseholders were unable to sell their homes. With mortgage lenders unwilling to value properties, it was also not necessarily possible to move and rent out homes because of requirements to move to a different type of mortgage product. Taken together, this has resulted in individuals being unable to make the kind of life choices that they would otherwise have been making, whether moving to a different city to take up a new job, having children, moving to help care for elderly relatives, or downsizing in retirement. Seeing others move on as the Covid-19-related lockdown was easing, only enhanced feelings that there was no return to a ‘normal’ life for the leaseholders caught up in the building safety crisis.

These kinds of issues are likely to leave a long-lasting impact on leaseholders, irrespective of any policy change on the part of Government to – for example – cover the cost of remediation works in full. That is because some of the choices that individuals have had to take – or have been unable to make – will have a profound impact on the shape of their life in the future. Many leaseholders talked about feeling that they had lost the future that they thought they would have. The response to this crisis from Government, and some of the public narratives that this has engendered, has also fundamentally shaken individuals’ perception of themselves and their value in society. These harms have already been done, and will continue to be done the longer the crisis continues without effective resolution.

The report makes a number of recommendations for policy and practice – this is obviously a fast-moving policy environment, and many leaseholders are hopeful that recent announcements by the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove will result in a new approach to tackling the crisis. Government must urgently:

  1. Lead a process to identify, prioritise and remediate (where necessary) affected buildings. In order to prioritise buildings at highest risk, this necessitates central coordination.
  2. Remediation should be underpinned by comprehensive funding which is not limited by building height, or solely to materials integral to a cladding system.
  3. Government should take responsibility for recouping costs (where there is a reasonable chance of success and this is a suitable course of action). Leaseholders want to see individuals and organisations held to account where failures have been identified.
  4. Access to affordable buildings insurance premiums must be maintained, for example by modelling the approach to insurance for buildings at risk of flooding.
  5. Materials and labour for remediation should be zero-rated for VAT.

Some may baulk at the likely cost to Government of funding remediation, especially given the challenges (and costs) associated with attempting to pursue other parties retrospectively through legal channels. Whilst accountability is a desirable aim, it is unlikely to result in a significant financial contribution relative to the overall cost of remediation work (which some estimates have put at up to £15 billion). However, there is a cost to not acting. This is not just incurred by those individuals who are affected by the building safety crisis directly, in relation to the damage done financially, mentally and physically. There is also a wider social impact – and cost – arising from poor health outcomes. Furthermore, because the building safety crisis as it is presently configured encompasses within its grasp so many buildings, it has resulted in the seizing up of a significant component of the housing market, particularly new-build flats. With evidence that mortgage lenders are still unwilling to lend on flats without an external wall survey, despite Government attempts to re-impose limits on the types of properties that require such costly assessments, concern is growing about the wider market impacts. This all adds to the urgency of a new approach to resolve the building safety crisis for all those affected.

Dr Jenny Preece is a research associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. 

This blog has been cross-posted from the blog, Housing after Grenfell.

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